Born Again Christians?
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is the Gospel reading from John chapter three.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you've probably heard the phrase "born again Christian." There are historical and theological problems with it that should make us reluctant to use it. That is why I have question mark after the title of this sermon.
First, "born again Christian" only became popular starting in the 1960s in America, and anything that came out of the 60s is inherently suspect in my book. Did you know that some of the first people to call themselves "born again Christians" were the Jesus People (or, Jesus Freaks) and other members of the Christian countercultural movement? The term is already corrupted in its origins.
My second concern about "born again Christian" is with what people usually mean when they say it, which almost always reflects bad theology; decision theology in particular. Usually when folks claim to be born again, they mean that they had a conversion experience in which they made a decision then and there to follow Jesus or give their hearts to Him. In the worst cases, such people will claim that unless you have had a dramatic conversion experience, you aren't really a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit.
A heavy emphasis on conversion experiences ends up giving credit to people for doing something to come to salvation and does not give all the glory to God alone. If you've ever heard a conversion story, it's full of first person pronouns — "I, me, my, myself" — and uses those pronouns more often than the name of Jesus Christ. Usually when I'm talking about myself, I'm talking about my will, my works, my actions, which makes it sound like my decision to follow Jesus is what saved me. If your salvation is based on your decision, then your salvation is based on your work, and you imply that God owes you salvation as a repayment for your decision to follow Jesus.
St. Paul devastates decision theology, particularly in Romans 4. He says, "What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'"
Notice that St. Paul specifically contrasts trust in God with works that earn wages. The One doing the forgiving and saving is God, and faith is the empty hand that merely receives the salvation. However, if your salvation is based on an experience of conversion in which you did a work—an act of the will, like giving your heart to Jesus, or making a decision—then your salvation is something God owes you, and it is no longer a gift from God. Then you're on dangerous ground, since a couple of chapters later, Paul writes, "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
Which brings me to my third reason for avoiding the phrase "born again Christian"—the phrase is redundant. It's like saying "This is wet water." Duh. All water is wet. Likewise, all Christians are born again of God, whether or not they have had a dramatic conversion experience. You cannot be a Christian unless you have been born again of God by the work of the Holy Spirit bringing you to faith in Jesus, and Jesus tells us in today's Gospel reading that we should look for certainty of our rebirth not in our experiences but in the waters of Holy Baptism.
Jesus says to Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus doesn't get it, so he responds, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answers, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Let's take a poll: how many of you decided to be born? Did any of you inform your parents about when a good time to conceive would be? Those are ridiculous questions, but they are no more ridiculous than saying, "I decided to be born again on such and such date. I told the Lord that I would be born again." Jesus devastates any human notion that we contribute anything to becoming Christians; we cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless God gives rebirth to us. The Holy Spirit awakens faith in Christ in our hearts and leads us to Holy Baptism, where we are given a new life. In Baptism we know for certain that we are born of water and the Spirit and are born again of God.
When the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" are said alongside the application of water, then we can say with certainty that a person dead in sin has been born again is a child of God. In Titus 3, St. Paul points us to our Baptism for certainty of our salvation, when He writes, "[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7). As we confess in the Small Catechism, Baptism is "a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit."
If anyone ever asks you, "Are you a born again Christian?" say, "If by 'born again Christian' you mean someone who believes in Jesus and has been baptized, then, yes. I know that I have been born again because I have been baptized into Christ, and He promises that this bath ensures that I am born again of water and the Holy Spirit." Whether you were nine hours old, 9 days old or 90 years old when you received Holy Baptism, you can identify that day as your birthday into eternal life.
And that's what's at stake here: eternal life. In our Gospel reading Jesus said, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Our rebirth as Christians all depends on Christ's death on the cross. As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they grumbled against the Lord, so He punished them by sending fiery serpents to kill many of them, but He provided a way of salvation from the serpent bites. God told Moses to fashion a fiery serpent and put it on a pole, and whoever looked up at that serpent would not die.
Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading that He would become the accursed serpent on a pole, a condemned sinner on the cross, so that He could atone for the sins of the world and accomplish salvation for all men, and so all who believe in Him will not eternally perish but have eternal life. God loved the world in this way: by sending His Son to die in our place. And now I ask you the same question St. Paul asked the Christians at Rome: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3)
Now, I know this does not make a whole lot of sense logically—that you are born again at the same time you are baptized into Christ's death. How does that work? Paul continues, "We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:4)
The reason you do not have to die for your sins is that you already have died for them when you were baptized into Christ's death for sin. He took all your sins and died for them, and so His death for sin is your death for sin. In your Baptism you died with Christ; you were crucified with Him.
But Christ did not remain in the grave. His Father raised Him up on the third day, and so in your Baptism, you can be sure that you have received the life of Christ as your own, so that you live a new life. In fact, you now possess eternal life by faith in the Son, so that when your heart stops beating and brain goes dead, you will pass over from life into life. For in the washing of water with God's Word, you can be certain that you, a dead sinner, have been called into eternal life.
In Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit makes you a holy and precious child of God. That, my friends, is the greatest miracle of all. It is like the creation of the world all over again. Your God is the one Abraham believed in, who "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4:17). Before coming to faith in Christ and being brought to Baptism, you were spiritually dead, but in Your Baptism the Holy Spirit gives you the life of Christ. Baptism gives the assurance that you are a child of God in His Kingdom through your Brother and Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Job said, "Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not" (Job 14:1-2). And then Job asks the immortal question: "If a man dies, shall he live again?" (Job 14:14).
Your Savior Jesus and your Baptism into Him say to you, "Yes. You shall live again." Jesus says in our Gospel reading that if you believe in Him and are born of water and the Holy Spirit, you will see the Kingdom of God. We confess in the Small Catechism that "[Baptism] works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare." And we know that whatever God's Word and promises declare, He will stand behind: "Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). Grant this Lord, to us all. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.